13. Memorandum of a Conversation, Department of State1


  • Viet-Nam-Discussion with the British


  • Lord Hood
  • Mr. Denis Greenhill, Counselor, British Embassy
  • Mr. C.D. Wiggin, First Secretary, British Embassy
  • Mr. J.B. Denson, First Secretary, British Embassy
  • Mr. Ivan B. White, Deputy Asst. Secretary for European Affairs
  • Mr. William C. Burdett, Jr., Director, BNA
  • Mr. James D. Moffett, BNA
  • Mr. Chalmers B. Wood, Officer in Charge, Viet-Nam Affairs

Lord Hood felt that it would be worth discussing the present tensions and threats which existed in Viet-Nam. Mr. White requested Mr. Wood to give our views briefly.

After stating that the nadir might have been passed during the last month or two, Mr. Wood spoke of the repeated suggestions which Ambassador Durbrow had made on the subject of liberalization, indicating that while the Vietnamese were well aware of our views, we would continue to keep this subject alive. However, there was some feeling that certain Western observers, especially newspapermen, tended to over-stress the question of liberalizing the regime. There were other illiberal regimes in Asia. While it was perhaps more important for President Diem to establish a better “dialogue” with his people, the main problem in Viet-Nam appeared to be the Communist threat. As to liberalization, we had noted some responsiveness on President Diem’s part; the National Assembly was playing a somewhat greater role and the press occasionally gave voice to cautious criticism.

As to security, we had recently put forward to the Vietnamese Government a plan2 which had been carefully worked out by our various specialists and had been approved in Washington at a very high level. In general this plan called for certain changes in the Vietnamese Government which would increase its efficiency in dealing with the Communists and envisaged increasing the Vietnamese armed forces by 20,000 men. Certain parts of the plan had already [Page 36] been adopted, such as our training program for the Civil Guard. We had recently explained this plan to President Diem.3 In addition to requiring a great deal of cooperation on both sides, it would also cost the Vietnamese a good deal of their own money. We felt that their economy was capable of meeting these additional expenses. President Diem had not been sure of this when the plan was explained to him. For the present the plan was being studied by the Vietnamese Government. It did not seem profitable to go into detail on the plan until agreement had been reached with the Vietnamese.

We had been pleased by President Diem’s press conference of February 6,4 particularly as this appeared to be the first time in which he had been willing to engage in questions and answers with the correspondents. We hoped that this custom would continue and that Diem could also be persuaded to make at least occasional informal radio talks. It seemed to us that this might provide an area where our Ambassadors in Saigon could work together.

The substance of Diem’s public appearance on the 6th had also been encouraging since it showed that he was seeking to increase the coordination and efficiency of his government and to increase the participation of various groups such as the peasants (demonstrated by his plans for electing youths to village councils and the eventual creation of district and village councils) as well as by the creation of councils which were designed to attract the intellectuals and the businessmen.

Finally, in terms of Diem’s security, we felt it essential for him to seek some improvement in his relations with Prince Sihanouk in order to achieve at least a minimum of border control. Here again there might be room for joint efforts between the American, British and French Ambassadors in Saigon and possibly in Phnom Penh. We felt such efforts could best be arranged in the field.

Lord Hood expressed his government’s interest in the counterinsurgency plan and indicated that the British, on the basis of their Malayan experience, hoped to be able to cooperate. They would appreciate receiving fuller information on the plan. It was indicated that we would give them more on this as the situation developed.

Lord Hood felt in general that their own appreciation of the over-all situation in Viet-Nam was somewhat more pessimistic than ours, but he was inclined to agree that Diem was at last taking some realistic steps to meet the problems he faced. He agreed that there might well be room for coordination in attempting to persuade President Diem to be more communicative and in encouraging him to improve his relations with Cambodia.

  1. Source: Department of State, Central Files, 751K.00/2-2161. Secret. Drafted by Wood and initialed by White. A summary of the conversation was transmitted to Saigon in telegram 1106, February 24. (Ibid., 751K.00/2-2461) A briefing memorandum for the meeting, dated February 15, is ibid., Vietnam Task Force Files: Lot 66 D 193, 1-A.2 Briefing Papers, GVN 1961.
  2. Document 1.
  3. See Document 11.
  4. See Document 10.